October 22, 2013 at 1:00 am

Signing up for health care not heavenly, but it isn't hellish, either

The insurance exchange healthcare.gov has had many problems, but President Barack Obama pledged Monday they would be fixed. (Karen Bleier / Getty Images)

After the president of the United States spoke Monday about the disastrous opening of HealthCare.gov, I decided to give the website a whirl.

I would go in boldly, unassisted, without a “navigator,” as the site dubs facilitators, or an insurance agent or any third party who might coach me through the glitches and the surges. No one would hold my hand through a system crash.

Health care delivery has been in crisis, a balancing act of rising costs and limited access, for decades. From the beginning, I have appreciated the new law’s intention to change the paradigm. But by the time of Obama’s speech, I — like millions of Americans — was baffled about whether this approach is going to work.

Hysteria had attended the website’s opening from Day One. Ultimately, the government shut down, the media shrieked. Evidence of electronic mayhem was everywhere — but whether the law is driving rates up or down is unclear and wildly anecdotal. Cast off by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a lawyer friend went on the Web and found she could cut her costs in half by using the state exchange.

Employers sent letters announcing benefit cuts because of the Affordable Care Act, without further explanation. One side’s good TV — Sean Hannity’s six-person tales of “train wreck” health care woe — turns out to be the other side’s proof of bad intentions: Salon.com’s Eric Stern re-interviewed the panel, and found their horror stories mostly proved they hated the idea of Obamacare so much they hadn’t tried out the reality.

I created an ID and logged in. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t “The Exorcist” either.

It took me 20 minutes to enroll, with a few starts and stops. The website was more navigable than most, with offers of “live chat” and a display of big buttons and bold letters.


I have health care coverage through my employer, but the website enables you to qualify, compare plans and apply for coverage even if you do.

When I finished clicking, the website announced my enrollment was complete, and I printed an 11-page form entitling me to purchase health coverage “through the Marketplace.” It can do this in Tagalog, French Creole, Urdu or 13 other languages, including English.

It provided information about subsidies, tax credits and the potential for a penalty if I didn’t buy and maintain health coverage.

Then the system stalled. I couldn’t advance to the next stage. Even my online experience with Obamacare is a work in progress, a fragile experiment that might ultimately improve American health care — or not.

Frustrated, I reached out to the live chat helper, “Melinda,” who suggested I wait another 24 hours.

“It takes a little bit to show the plans,” she typed.

“Do you have any other questions I can help you with?” Melinda asked.

I did: “How’s it going? Are you a fan of Obamacare?”

She typed back, in clear English: “Good. Getting better every day.”

(313) 222-2032
Laura Berman’s column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

More Laura Berman